(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 1: Slaves
Qwella – Qemassen: The Palace Complex
Shut up, shut up, shut up! Qwella marched into the smaller of her home’s two reception rooms, ahead of her sister Himalit.
Couldn’t Hima be quiet for once?
“—and then, when he’d cleaned himself off and sent the slaves to mop up the oil, he had the audacity to ask me for a recommendation. After all that, after he spilled his stinking fucking fish guts all over my deck. It’s incompetent is what it is. It’s madness.”
“It’s terrible,” Qwella agreed, even though she wasn’t sure she did. “But I—”
“—and I could have lifted that amphora, if I’d wanted. I don’t understand these Anata. They’re scrawny, and useless, and they come here, to my fleet, bleating for favours when they’ve insulted me to my face, ignoring my station, making eyes at me with their fucking rat-faces and—”
Qwella hauled off the wool palla wrapped over shoulder and tossed it as hard as she could at the nearest table, where a perfume bottle toppled to the floor. A scattering of other objects followed—all the fine little presents her husband Sabé had procured for her: that odd, hard, Inda pillow; the votive of Adonen from Qelat; an ivory comb from Ajwata; a hundred tiny trinkets from Lorar and beyond. Qwella’s Anata slave-girl, Iqara, hurried in her mistress’s wake, collecting every one of them.
Qwella wished they wouldn’t do that. Sometimes she wanted to be angry and wallow in it. Sometimes she wanted to make a mess. Slaves should clean at your convenience, shouldn’t they?
She held her tongue all the same. She couldn’t command Iqara to leave. Qwella had never been able to command anyone. Instead, she slouched into her favourite chair, and dug her fingers into the rim of the cedar table beside her.
Hima still yammered on, but Qwella wasn’t listening. What did Qwella do with herself now? Life had changed drastically in a short time. Did she miss Sabé? She’d cried enough for him. To have cried so much must mean she’d loved him.
“Fetch some wine. The best.” Hima’s voice was a dagger piercing Qwella’s thoughts.
She looked up. Hima was in front of her now, wiry and tall, arms crossed. She could be standing on the deck of one of her beloved boats, instead of in Qwella’s chambers comforting her grieving sister. At least she’d stopped talking about her ships, now that wine had occurred to her. Qwella had just burned and buried her husband, but all Hima thought of was herself.
When Qwella didn’t hear Iqara skittering away to retrieve the wine, she turned her attention to the slave.
The poor girl was darting nervous glances between the two sisters. “But Sese, those are Sabeq eq-Sabaal’s wines. He doesn’t like it when—”
Hima glowered at her. “Sabeq eq-Sabaal is dead, little girl. Fetch us some wine. The best.”
Yes, dead. Sabeq eq-Sabaal was dead. “It’s all right Iqara, do as she says. I’m master of this house now, at least for tonight.” So why did Qwella keep thinking Sabé was about to walk into the room and scold her? She clasped her hands in her lap, turning one of her rings with her thumb.
Iqara left quickly, no doubt eager to escape Hima’s scorn. Qwella smiled to herself.
As though sensing the meaning of the expression, Hima narrowed her eyes. “You’re too kind to them. They don’t know their place.”
“She’s just a child, Hima.”
“She’s a slave.”
Qwella nodded—arguing with Hima was never worth the effort. And she did have a point. Hima’s slaves were always so well-behaved. Sabé had reprimanded Qwella for mothering his slaves just a few days ago. She could still see his face—red as he’d yelled, fists trembling.
She rubbed the ring, the gold warming at her prolonged touch. Hot like Sabé’s hands, fierce as his fists.
He had held her, though, when she’d cried. He’d been a good man.
“Qwella?” There was a hint of worry in Hima’s voice as she knelt beside Qwella and laid her hand on Qwella’s shoulder.
Qwella’s cheeks were damp—she hadn’t even noticed that she’d started to cry. That was bad of her too. Women should feel their grief deep in their bones. They should know their sadness. Qwella was moved only to distraction, her thoughts too tangled, unfixed, dissembling always into the question of what comes next?
Her tears retraced the paths they’d carved in her facepaint in Molot’s gardens. She must be a terrible sight. And that, at least, was how it should be. What kind of person left a funeral as immaculate as when she’d arrived?
She smiled and shook her head to let Hima know she would be fine, joined her fingers with her sister’s, and leaned her head against Hima’s side. When Hima was worried, she acted, and Qwella didn’t need Hima acting up a storm on her behalf. To not act when one could was a choice in itself. “I miss him. He was here only two days ago, lying in our bed. It’s hard not to think of him lying there. It’s hard not to think of him. You’re not a wife; you don’t know what that’s like.”
To feel that emptiness, to question what exactly was missed.
“I know what it’s like to love my family.”
Hima always had a rebuttal, as though every conversation were a fight.
“I didn’t mean it like that, only one misses the harmony of things. And now . . . . We never had children, Hima. There’s nothing to replace the harmony.”
Hima snorted. “You can have Hiram and Reshith, though my children aren’t exactly harmonious.”
She sniffed and looked up at Hima. If Hiram and Reshith were badly behaved sometimes, Hima had only herself to blame. “Why don’t you ever bring them to see their fathers? A son needs a man to look up to.”
Did Qwella truly want children? She couldn’t answer that. She couldn’t answer any of the hundred questions that clamoured for space inside the crater left by Sabé’s absent presence. And if she hadn’t wanted children, perhaps the gods had known. Perhaps Tanata had punished her with barrenness for her lack of desire.
Punished, or rewarded her.
Hima went quiet. When she spoke, her voice was tight. “Because I don’t know who their fathers are, and if I did know, it would make no difference. If a son needs a father, what about daughters and mothers? I’m the heq-Damirat, and all that without a mother for twenty years.”
Qwella raised an eyebrow. “Exactly.” Hauling cargo and playing war games were hardly woman’s work.
Hima unlaced her hand from Qwella’s. Before she could speak, Iqara returned with a pitcher of red wine, expensive stuff from Vetna, already old when the now-fallen Vetnu empire had been young. Another wedding gift from Qanmi. Iqara poured the wine into two cups, then left the jug to sit beside them. The gold of the pitcher nearly vanished into the gold inlay on the table.
“Leave us,” said Hima. She took a seat across from Qwella.
Iqara bowed, stretching her arms in front of her with her palms upward in deference. Then, she vanished. Iqara was just another trinket, really—another gift, though Qwella couldn’t honestly remember who’d gifted her. She should probably worry more at that—everyone told stories of slaves gifted to unsuspecting friends, their true masters retaining them as spies. Slaves saw so much, forgotten as they were, blending into the scenery just as the gold of Qwella’s crockery blended into the rest of her wealth. Grey figures, mere shades against the wall.
There were times it was helpful to be such a person.
Qwella stared at the dark drink, so rich and deep a colour. Just like blood. Like Sabé’s blood when she’d found him, lying on the floor with his brown eyes wide, and his lips parted with a strange, rabid ferocity. Red had poked between his teeth, painting his lips.
A serpent bite, the Ashqat had said.
Qwella shuddered and pushed her cup away.
Priestesses of Qalita were always called to attend a body. Doubly fitting in this case—Qalita, goddess of death, was the mother of poisons and venomous animals. Bride of Molot, Shy Queen, Quiet Lady, Chaste Mother. The goddess whose name men feared to speak.
As a wife, and a widow, was it Tanata who shone down on Qwella now, or was it the Quiet Lady who watched her from the shadows?
The tiles underfoot seemed to burn, hot like Qwella’s ring.
Qwella looked up at the sound of Hima shifting in her chair.
Hima sat with her legs stretched out, ignoring the drink. She was still dressed in the fine purple stola she’d worn for the funeral, but the pose belonged to her leather practice armour, her boyish body drowned in fabric. She caught Qwella’s gaze. “Father had suitors at the funeral. Did you see them? With any luck, you might like one of them this time.”
Qwella lifted her feet off the ground, slowly, not wanting to touch the ground where her husband had lain. “I did like Sabé. I told you.”
“You were used to him, Sister, it isn’t the same thing.”
Qwella didn’t want to think about husbands. She didn’t want to think about what would happen when they took her to their beds. Last night she’d awoken from a nightmare of hands grabbing her, tugging her breasts, pulling her arms, and parting her legs. Men had clambered onto her, faces blurry, bodies thick and stocky like Sabeq’s, or skinny and gaunt like her little brother’s.
The last one, the one at the end, had been a corpse.
A serpent bite—
She could still feel the sweat that had soaked her sheets. It didn’t matter that she’d washed and washed. She reached for the wine, avoiding looking too closely at the colour, and took a deep swig.
She’d never liked it when Sabé had touched her, had refused him if she could. His hands had been hungry though. He’d wanted what was his and she’d denied him too often for it to be natural. She hadn’t been a good wife. She hadn’t been a good princess. She’d rather not be one a second time.
A serpent bite or a scorpion sting.
The metal cup clanked against the polished table when she set it down. “I don’t want another husband.”
Hima leaned forward. “There’s an easy way around that, if you have the courage for it. Father’s not a hard man to convince. He’s weak, Qwella, and once you realize that, all you have to do is stand up to him. Like me and Aurelius. You could learn something from us.”
Qwella pursed her lips. Nothing was ever that simple. “I can’t. I’m supposed to be a good wife. It’s what we were born for, Hima.”
“No.” Hima’s voice grew louder, harsher. “We were born our mother’s daughters, or had you forgotten her? She wouldn’t have let them beat her down. She certainly wouldn’t have cried over Sabeq. She never did anything she didn’t choose to.”
“She married our father.” Qwella got to her feet and walked to the table with the perfumes and jewelry. She stared at her distorted face in the polished bronze mirror hanging on the wall: her round, plump features, her ebony skin, her short curly hair cropped against her face. She looked like Moniqa. Everyone said so.
She was nothing like her mother.
Hima’s chair scraped the floor. “Yes, she married our father. And I cried over Sabeq, but they weren’t real tears. She was forced by harder men than Eshmunen to marry our father, but she never gave him her heart.”
Qwella laughed sadly. It was a story, something Hima had made up to comfort herself. No matter what any of them thought, or how much time had passed, they all still lived beneath Moniqa’s shadow.
When Qwella turned her back on the mirror, Hima was staring straight through her—her brow drawn tight, the expression of annoyance exaggerated by her arched eyebrows, which joined in the middle, and which she refused to shave. Though Hima claimed to loathe Eshmunen, she looked her father’s daughter. Curls the colour of smooth argan seeds tumbled past her shoulders, skin a lighter brown than Qwella’s. She had Eshmunen’s cunning gold eyes and his thin, hooked nose. Where Qwella was round, Hima was narrow—the admiralty written in her body.
And standing there, clearly puzzled by Qwella’s little laugh, she was an admiral now. “Stand up to him, Qwella, or decide which one of Father’s monkeys you hate least.”
“They aren’t his monkeys though, are they? You know he still visits that horrible old man. I overheard them. They want me to marry Qanmi.” Qwella leaned back against the table, gripping it for support.
When the nightmare had ravaged her, Qanmi’s body had pressed down on her with all the rest, his slender frame heavy as stone, and just as unmoving.
“It has a certain logic.” Hima sighed. “I don’t like it though. He has too much power already. He’d marry Father if he could.”
Of course he would. Any fool would. “He tried to match Father with Titrit.”
“Did he?” Hima’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know.”
That was unusual—for Qwella to know something Hima didn’t. “Before Aurelius turned her away. Sabé told me.”
“Qanmi should have known better.”
Though the heq-Ashqen and the rest of the Semassenqa had pressured a second match following Moniqa’s death, Eshmunen had consistently refused. At least their father had refused Samelqo something. He’d loved his Indat queen, whatever else Hima thought. He’d loved her enough to lock the heq-Ashqen in a tower and execute those who’d killed her.
It might have made more of an impression had he not continued to seek Samelqo’s advice. These days, their father spent most of his time rotting up in that room with the gnarled old monster.
Qwella abandoned the table by the wall and found her drink. She took another gulp. “He’ll get what he wants, won’t he?” Qwella wasn’t even certain who she meant—Qanmi, her father, or Samelqo. Whoever he was, he always got what he wanted. Even Sabé, burned and buried deep beneath Molot’s loamy ceiling, seemed primed to reach out and grab a final cut of her. Only this time, Qanmi gripped the knife.
“If you let him.” Hima glanced at the doorway, as though watching for someone. “You can’t expect us to do everything for you, but you know we will if we have to, and that’s your problem. You think no one noticed when Sabeq hurt you, but Aurel did, and he told me.”
Qwella gripped her cup a little tighter and stared at the surface of the table: the beautiful gold palms, lotuses, and moons that made up its patterned surface. The whole world was made of patterns, interlocking somehow without ever touching. Their lives were like that too: drawing close but never close enough. Had she ever really known Sabeq? Did she know her sister? Did Hima know the fears that lurked in her mind?
Qwella set her cup down. “Could you leave now? Please?”
Hima got up, her chair scraping the floor again. “You should have a plan, for when Father approaches you. Qanmi’s not stealing you for his family twice; you’re one of us.”
“It’s not stealing if he pays for me.” Even Hima ought to know better than that.
“He’s not buying you either.” Hima pursed her thin lips. “You come up with a plan. A good one.”
A serpent bite, or a scorpion sting.
“You were wrong before, Hima. I do fight for myself.” The words sounded fierce in her mind, but all Himalit did was laugh.
“Then fight now, for your family’s sake if not your own.”
Hima smiled, turned, and left. So efficient, as though comforting Qwella had been only another task from her daily ledger.
For a long time, Qwella sat staring at the table. She’d arranged it that way yesterday, had thrown a silk cloth beneath it, so she could stand to look at that part of the floor.
Another gift from Qanmi. So many gifts.
Qwella dragged her chair away from the table, the table away from the cloth, the cloth from the floor. Trembling, she knelt down on that small patch of tile and pressed her ear to the ground as though she might hear whispers there, travelling along shadow-roads from some distant, illusory land. She stroked her palm along the flat bits of the mosaic, fingers tickling their edges. It was so clean, and clear, and crisp. She couldn’t smell anything. There was no sound, no whisper for her waiting mind. No stain where she’d found him.
A chorus of lilting, feminine voices drew Qwella’s attention. Someone was singing outside her window.
Qwella peeled herself from the floor. She stepped quietly to the window, as though whoever it was might run away if they heard her approaching. She wrapped her fingers about the painted limestone ledge, and peered into the riad below. The square, walled garden lay at the centre of her home, filled with beautiful flowers, lemon trees and the sound of trickling water. A brick cistern crouched at its centre, ready to catch any rain. The horseshoe arches that framed the riad led into the main floors of the house, where huge, painted doors opened into the palace gardens. She could lock all of the doors, of course, if she required privacy. Tonight though, Qwella’s household lay in mourning. The great decorated entrances had been left open for guests to enter as they chose.
Several Ashqata of Qalita paraded through the riad, their voices low and somnolent as they sung.
As they crept along the riad’s square path they swung thuribles filled with smoking sandalwood. Qwella counted twelve in all: four Ashqata, the heq-Ashqat of the order, and seven acolytes in plain, brown, hooded stolas. The Ashqata were robed in red dresses of translucent silks overlaid with sequined veils. The heq-Ashqat was hunched, doddery, and slow-moving, her hands shaking from the weight of the thurible. The other priestesses had to slow their pace to keep from tripping on the train of her robes. The old woman led the dirge, the rest following in chorus. It was a warding prayer, but Qwella didn’t know it by heart. They were concluding Sabé’s funeral rites, so that his qet and ban, the under-soul and over-soul, would not return to haunt his halls.
Too late though, for Qwella’s poor heart.
The small patch of tile was calling to her, demanding she look again, but she held fast, focusing instead on the simple beauty of the singing women. They were so precise, so synchronized, their fingers painted with henna patterns as intricate as the rituals of the goddess they served.
Unexpectedly, one of the veiled acolytes craned her neck, looking up at Qwella’s little window, looking at Qwella. The acolyte’s gaze seemed to tug Qwella downward. Deep down, into the quiet halls of the Shy Queen.
The girl’s brown curls poked out from her hood, catching the light as she passed one of the lanterns decorating the path—a mistake, perhaps, to judge by the neatness of the other acolytes.
She turned away and was gone. The priestesses stepped back into the main house as they completed their circuit of the riad, the absence of their singing leaving the house lonely once more.
With her head still laid on her arms, Qwella shut her eyes, the memory of the music her lullaby.
So beautiful. So simple. The world shrunk to the size of a song, to the goddess it invoked. Quiet Lady, Shy Queen, Chaste Mother.
Qwella had a plan now, and Hima wouldn’t like it.